J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

“A 13-inch bomb dropped directly opposite the door”

Yesterday I quoted an account from early July 1775 of American soldiers in Roxbury defusing an unexploded British mortar shell by kicking out the burning fuse before its spark reached the explosive charge.

That seems to have been what one did with shells that landed without exploding. Here are some more examples from the Cambridge side of the provincial lines. First, from the memoir of John Greenwood, who was a teenaged fifer in 1775:

Night was the time for frolicking, as the British were constantly sending bombs at us, and sometimes from two to six at a time could be seen in the air overhead, looking like moving stars in the heavens. These shells were mostly thirteen inches in diameter, and it was astonishing how high they could send such heavy things.

I have often seen them strike the ground when it was frozen and bound up like a foot-ball, and again, falling on marshy land, they would bury themselves from ten to twelve feet in it, whereupon, the wet ground having extinguished the fuse, the Yankees would dig them up to get the powder out.

On one occasion a 13-inch bomb dropped directly opposite the door of the picket guard-house where 200 men were on duty, and a lad about eighteen years old, named Shubael Rament [Raymond], belonging to our company, ran out, knocked the fusee from the shell, and took the powder out of it, of which I had some myself to kill snipe with.
A similar reminiscence appeared in the Memoir of the Life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, the wife of the Josiah Quincy who became mayor of Boston and president of Harvard. In October 1830 the Quincys hosted Dr. Amos Holbrook of Milton, who had been surgeon’s mate in Col. John Greaton’s Regiment starting in August 1775.
“The [Harvard] President’s house was given to the commissary of the army,” said Dr. Holbrook; “and I was quartered at the house of Mr. [David] Phips, in the neighborhood. The colleges were much injured by the garrison. The rooms in Harvard Hall, except the one then used as a library, were filled with barrels of salt beef, brought by the country people for the army. One day, during the siege of Boston, a shell thrown by the British from Copp’s Hill struck the ground in the square near the President’s house. The fuze was yet burning; and a soldier went and stamped it out, at the risk of his life.”
That house is now called Wadsworth House, no longer the college president’s home but an administrative building. The “square near the President’s house” is now Harvard Square. Click the thumbnail above for a larger picture by eileansiar of the area that seems to have been saved from shelling.

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